Carolina Panthers defense coping with change
The third and final storyline I want to highlight as we set to depart for training camp is how this defensive front seven acclimates to the change in scheme and how the player rotation shapes up.
While the overall sense surrounding the new defensive system is one of optimism, there’s still an accompanying whisper of trepidation. Switching systems brings uncertainty, there’s no way around that.
Derrick Brown is coming off his best season as a professional. He looked confident and comfortable in what he was being asked to do. Now he’ll be asked to do more and to do differently. I don’t say that to imply that he won’t be able to, or that he won’t thrive in being used differently - especially in a more natural alignment than he often played these previous seasons.
In fact, when looking at the Auburn product's alignment counts provided by Pro Football Focus, his deployment last season was much more versatile than the previous two. Brown played 870 defensive snaps in 2022 - lining up in the A gap for 361, the B gap for 389, and over the offensive tackle for 110. The remaining 10 snaps came lined up outside of the tackle.
Versatility doesn’t equal trouble for Brown. And I don’t believe it will for Brian Burns, either.
Burns has been working diligently to recover from ankle surgery and looks to be in absolutely phenomenal physical shape. But it will still be interesting to see, rather than just predict, their usage in the new system.
My peak curiosity on the defensive front seven is two-fold, essentially.
- What is the rotation at nose tackle?
- What is the edge rotation opposite Burns?
Shy Tuttle and DeShawn Williams were the notable linemen additions brought in this offseason. Both players are versatile, big bodies. Not prototypical nose tackles, though. I would venture to guess the middle spot of the line will be heavily rotational.
My wildcard there is Marquan McCall. The second-year undrafted free agent out of Kentucky has the wide frame and brute strength, measuring in at 6-foot-3 and 345lbs, teams covet for the zero-technique alignment.
If McCall can carve out a consistent role along the defensive line, it makes the versatility on the ends even more dangerous as they can be rotated in and out depending on situations and freshness.
The nose tackle position also holds serious ramifications for the linebackers and edge players. If that spot can occupy at least two offensive linemen, and Evero dials up blitz packages anywhere near the rate that he did last season with the Denver Broncos, Carolina's second-level defenders should find themselves in fortuitous opportunities to capitalize on.
So how does that position - the edge/outside linebacker - play out?
I’ve made clear where I stand with Marquis Haynes Sr. I believe he has the makings of a potential breakout player should he receive a substantial uptick in snaps played. I also recognize some of the worry with Haynes is his susceptibility when setting the edge.
Haynes has added weight and strength to his frame, playing around 250 pounds. That should aid in him holding up better than some may anticipate.
Though it won’t be any surprise to see Yetur Gross-Matos manning the post on either side at times, as well. He has the more obvious physical size and efficiency as a run defender. The question with the former second-round Penn State Nittany Lion centers on whether he possesses the athleticism to stay on the field in multiple situations, or will he be more of a run-defense package player.
The unknown commodities are rookie third-round pick, D.J. Johnson, second-year player Amare Barno, tight end-to-linebacker convert Jordan Thomas, and undrafted free agent Eku Leota.
You don’t hoist the Lombardi Trophy in July and August, that’s a fact. I’m not looking for insider information to place a heavy wager on a futures bet while the Panthers are in training camp.
But this is the opportunity to look at the bones of the building. The framework will be laid out and adjustments will be scribbled over the original renderings as developments reveal themselves. No more hypotheticals - we’re getting to see it now.
Man... I’m just happy football is back.